Politics & Policy

The Weaknesses That Doomed Ted Cruz

(Pearl Gabel/Reuters)

Indianapolis — Ted Cruz’s first big victory celebration, replete with confetti, champagne, and the kind of stemwinding speech that would become a hallmark of his election-night events, came at the Iowa state fairgrounds on February 1. He’d just won the caucuses in a grueling and hard-fought victory, and while the political cognoscenti still loathed him, they could no longer dismiss him.

On Monday, 91 days later, Cruz found himself at another state fairgrounds 475 miles away in Indianapolis, his chances of becoming the Republican nominee withering. Indiana was supposed to be friendly territory for Cruz, who burst onto the national scene in 2012 by harnessing the energy of the tea-party movement, and was the first to grasp that the simmering anger that propelled him to office could also fuel a presidential campaign. Hoosier State Republicans traded Richard Lugar for the archconservative Richard Mourdock the same year, and as recently as a few weeks ago there was reason to believe they could revive Cruz’s campaign. But in the end, like those in so many other states this cycle, they broke for a candidate with fewer conservative bonafides but more of a claim on the outsider status that Cruz once owned.

He lost Indiana to Donald Trump by 16 points on Tuesday, and with it any shot at clinching the nomination at a contested convention in Cleveland this summer. Afterward, he announced before a ballroom of supporters that he was suspending his campaign.

“From the beginning, I’ve said that I would continue on as long as there was a viable path to victory,” Cruz told the crowd. Eruptions of “Nooooo!” and a mumble of “Aw, s**t,” punctuated his remarks. 

“Tonight, I’m sorry to say it appears that path has been foreclosed,” he said.

Cruz’s is the story of a disciplined candidate and a well-run campaign that couldn’t overcome their limitations. Since well before he officially launched his campaign, the Texas senator worked to carve out a niche as the most conservative candidate on offer. He’d been eyeing a presidential bid from the time he was elected to the Senate, and his carefully-crafted anti-establishment brand carried a cost: He’d publicly flogged his Senate colleagues to build up a national fan base, earning the lasting enmity of his Senate colleagues. As the campaign dragged on, Cruz’s team came to believe that if he could emerge as the last man standing against Trump, even those who despised him would be forced to come on board. But his appeal remained limited and left him struggling to expand his support even as the field contracted, while the man who defeated him had a message for the masses, or at least moderates, independent voters, and a handful of Democrats – and the platform to deliver it to them.

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The forces that propelled Cruz to victory in Iowa provide a window into the operating assumptions of his campaign. There, in a low-turnout caucus state, a superior ground operation allowed him to survive Trump’s last-minute surge, as well as a litany of attacks down the home stretch.

His campaign spent almost a year using state-of-the art technology developed by the firm Cambridge Analytica to identify and target likely volunteers and voters, and to approach them in an individualized manner. “We’ve got more volunteers than people have votes,” campaign manager Jeff Roe told National Review in late January. Those volunteers walked the streets of Iowa equipped with information on individual voters and suggestions on how best to target them based on “psychographic” profiles culled from publicly available information including their age, gender, magazine subscriptions, and spending habits.

The technology and manpower were enough to sustain Cruz as the race turned nasty in the weeks before the caucuses. Trump questioned Cruz’s citizenship. Mike Huckabee called him a bad Christian. A special-interest group hounded him for opposing ethanol subsidies. The New York Times reported on his failure to disclose loans from Citibank and Goldman Sachs that financed the 2012 Senate campaign. And the attacks took their toll: The final Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll, released just days before the caucuses, showed his net favorability had declined 20 points in less than a month.

Cruz’s victory in Iowa was misleading, masking his identity as a niche candidate.

Cruz triumphed nonetheless, besting Trump by three points. His strategy from the outset had been to unite tea-partiers and Evangelicals under the same banner, and it looked as though he was succeeding: He won a plurality of the 62 percent of caucus-goers who identified themselves as Evangelical Christians, and a plurality of the 40 percent who described their political philosophy as “very conservative.”

The campaign argued that its unparalleled data operation and ground game, along with Cruz’s popularity among grassroots conservatives, were a recipe for clinching the nomination. They weren’t, and in that sense, Cruz’s victory in Iowa was misleading, masking his identity as a candidate who would ultimately struggle to expand his appeal beyond his core supporters. “His niche was always on the far right, being the most conservative guy,” says a top Republican strategist. “That was integral to the candidacy and integral to who Ted Cruz is. That’s his character in the play.”

That proved particularly problematic as Trump began to eat into his support among tea-party types, including Evangelicals, with his incendiary rhetoric on immigration and by positioning himself as the true outsider in the race. As Cruz’s rivals began to fold — Scott Walker in July, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum after Iowa — Cruz struggled to break out of the box he’d built for himself after arriving in the Senate to mount a tea-party insurrection in 2012. “Cruz has run a clever, tactical race,” says David Axelrod, who served as the chief strategist for Barack Obama’s insurgent campaign in 2008, as well as for his reelection effort in 2012. “He identified a discreet cohort — Evangelicals and very conservative voters — and worked them relentlessly, which pays dividends in a huge and divided Iowa field. But the Trump wave overwhelmed tactics, the field dwindled, and Cruz found himself scrambling to enlarge his base.”

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Because of his inherent limitations, Cruz had devised a relatively narrow path to the nomination that took him through religious, conservative strongholds such as Iowa, South Carolina, and ultimately, the swath of southern, conservative, largely Evangelical states that voted in the so-called “SEC primary” on March 1. Cruz liked to refer to it as his southern “firewall.”

“He tried to rewrite the script for how a presidential primary is won,” says Rich Danker, the founder of the Lone Star Committee, a 527 group that until recently was making independent expenditures on Cruz’s behalf. “I think in the end it comes down to an insecurity about being elected president, [a feeling] that he couldn’t do that the way the primary contest typically happens. You’ve gotta compete everywhere, win early, and do well across a diverse landscape.”

Millions of dollars of money ‘raised’ by the super PACs were never released by their donors, and thus could never be spent to help Cruz.

Cruz and his team were aware of his limitations. He barely competed in New Hampshire, the least religious state in the nation, and one with a history of rebuffing the Iowa victor. He spent just 27 days there — fewer than John Kasich, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, and Marco Rubio. (Kasich and Christie spent more than 70 days on the ground in the state.) Cruz’s campaign and the super PACs supporting his candidacy combined to spend less than $1 million there, while the Bush, Christie, Rubio, and Kasich campaigns combined with their super PACs to pour in $35 million, $18 million, $15 million, and $12 million, respectively.

Though Cruz and his allies likely would’ve decided against investing significant money in the Granite State, it’s also true that their allied super PACs couldn’t spend a significant amount of the money piling up in their coffers. In a bizarre scheme, Cruz donors had placed a total of $38 million into bank accounts, but the cash came with all sorts of strings attached. In the end, millions of dollars of money “raised” by the super PACs were never spent on Cruz’s behalf

Ironically, it was the campaign’s proven fundraising ability, much of it phantom, that put Cruz on the map when much of official Washington still considered his candidacy a joke. After he raised more money in the first quarter of 2015 than any other candidate with the exception of Jeb Bush, they had no choice but to take him seriously. The vast majority of the super PAC money, though, came from three wealthy donors whose largesse was conditional. One of them, Toby Neugebauer, an American ex-pat living in Puerto Rico, ultimately spent just $1 million of the $10 million he gave to a Cruz-backing super PAC.

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If the strings attached to the super PAC money were one indication of the campaign’s shaky foundations, its performance in South Carolina was another. The state should’ve been fertile ground for Cruz; his team saw it as a chance to replicate the tactics that helped him win Iowa, but in a larger state that hosted a primary rather than a caucus. At two Camp Cruz locations, volunteers poured in from outside the state to lend a hand, bunking up in low-budget motel rooms and doing whatever they could to support the campaign. In the days before the February 20 primary, Cruz himself emphasized the importance of person-to-person contact. “This campaign I believe is gonna be decided by the grassroots,” he told reporters at the time. “It’s gonna be decided friend to friend, neighbor to neighbor, pastor to pastor, South Carolinian to South Carolinian.”

South Carolina is famous for its culture of down-and-dirty politics, and it gave birth to the moniker that would haunt Cruz for the remainder of the race: “Lyin’ Ted.” In the final debate before the state’s primary contest, Cruz attacked Trump as a liberal, citing his past positions on abortion and other issues. “You are the single biggest liar, you probably are worse than Jeb Bush,” Trump said. “You are the single biggest liar. This guy lied about Ben Carson when he took votes away from Ben Carson in Iowa, and he just continues. . . . This guy will say anything, nasty guy, now I know why he doesn’t have one endorsement from any of his colleagues.”

Trump would go on to threaten a lawsuit over Cruz’s use of television footage in a campaign ad. Marco Rubio and his allies, meanwhile, cried foul over a photoshopped image being circulated by the Cruz campaign and alleged that Cruz aides had created a bogus Facebook page intended to derail his campaign. “For a number of weeks now, Ted Cruz has just been telling lies,” Rubio said.

South Carolina is famous for its culture of down-and-dirty politics, and it gave birth to the moniker that would haunt Cruz for the remainder of the race: ‘Lyin’ Ted.’

Despite the attacks, with a whopping 72 percent of South Carolina Republicans identifying as Evangelical or born-again Christians, the electorate favored Cruz — at least it should have. But South Carolina, the first big test of Cruz’s southern strategy, failed to deliver him a victory. Trump won a 33 percent plurality of Evangelicals in the state, followed by Cruz with 27 percent and Rubio with 22 percent. Though Cruz carried the 38 percent of voters who said they were “very conservative,” it was too small a group to boost him to victory over Trump — or Rubio, for that matter, who narrowly defeated him to finish second.

Beyond that, while Trump and Rubio performed equally and reasonably well with non-Evangelicals in the state, Cruz’s performance with them was abysmal — he won just 13 percent of that group, similar to the 19 percent share he took home in Iowa.

Cruz’s performance underscored the narrowness of his appeal: He was unable to expand beyond a core group of ideologically animated voters, and as Trump ate into his support among Evangelicals, that proved too small a base to carry him to victory. South Carolina was a precursor of Cruz’s performance across the South, where he lost races in states with conservative, Evangelical populations such as Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, and Arkansas. In Georgia, Cruz won among self-identified “very conservative” voters, but they were greatly outnumbered by both the “somewhat conservative” and “moderate” voters who went for Trump, and Trump took a plurality of the 69 percent who called themselves either born-again or Evangelical Christians. In Alabama, the story was even worse: Trump won a plurality even of self-identified “very conservative” voters, taking 41 percent to Cruz’s 29, in addition to a 21-point victory among Evangelicals.

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Broadly speaking, Cruz’s triumphs were more the exception than the rule. His victory in Wisconsin a month ago, for example, was the result of a confluence of forces – outside spending, conservative media, and support from local politicians — that wouldn’t again coalesce on his behalf. And ultimately, because he lost much of the South, Cruz wound up battling Trump into April, which meant facing primaries in the Northeast, where the nature of his candidacy made him incapable of competing.

“The math of it allowed him to lose those states as long as he won Indiana and then did credibly well in California, so performing well in the Northeast was not required,” says the GOP strategist. “The problem though with doing it just based on math was the momentum and media effects of constantly losing. So Trump’s success in the Northeast made him stronger than he otherwise would’ve been in Indiana, and Cruz’s failure made him weaker than he otherwise would’ve been.”

Campaign operatives like to say, in a somewhat self-serving manner, that the best campaigns can’t compensate for a terrible candidate. And no, Cruz won’t ever be mistaken for a likeable guy, something his supporters constantly tried to address with superficial changes. The former Texas senator Phil Gramm, who endorsed Cruz after his first-choice candidate, Marco Rubio, dropped out of the race, bombarded Cruz with criticisms of his apparel and his manners — in particular his smile and nod, which many, it turns out, found irritating. “Whatever I said to him, I’m not gonna say to the world,” Gramm says. Tony Perkins, the chairman of the Family Research Council, reportedly advised Cruz to replace his white shirts and red ties with pastels in order to soften his image. His campaign aides, by and large, took him out of his suit and tie and put him in casual clothing on the campaign trail, where he often appeared in jeans and a hunter green Barbour jacket, to combat his image as an obnoxious, acid-tongued attorney.

All those modifications wouldn’t have compensated for the damage Cruz had done as a gadfly in the Senate. It was a paradox of his candidacy: The obnoxiousness on which he built his brand so alienated the establishment that there was no one around to save him when that branding proved insufficient. “Ultimately, he was in the awkward position of relying on the folks he absolutely vilified as ‘the Washington cartel’ to save him, winning the most grudging set of endorsements in the history of presidential politics,” says Obama’s Axelrod

Cruz’s team had operated under the assumption that if he could emerge as the last man standing against Trump, support and resources would flow their way because there would be nowhere else for Official Washington to go. To some extent they were right: Utah senator Mike Lee endorsed him on March 10; South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham offered a muted endorsement on March 27; and Jeb Bush came around a week later. But even those who backed him did so through gritted teeth.

Cruz’s own stubbornness deserves as much blame as any strategic miscalculations. He became his own brand, refusing to the bitter end to beseech his Senate colleagues for their support even when those, like his fellow Texas senator John Cornyn, reached out to make amends. This left even some of his closest allies frustrated. “The wish list for Ted would include unleashing a charm offensive and repairing relationships with Senate colleagues,” says Kellyanne Conway, who served as president of Keep the Promise, a pro-Cruz super PAC. “The guy who suspended his campaign tonight was accessible, passionate, and yes, likable. If you have the endorsements of Jeb Bush and Lindsey Graham and wish to unify the party, it is not a stretch to engage your Senate colleagues.”

#related#Ultimately, Cruz and his allies underestimated what it would mean for the establishment to validate what one top Senate aide called “the Cruz model” — that is, to hand the nomination to a first-term senator who had declared war against the party, publicly humiliated some of its longest-serving elected officials, and helped to drive a Republican House speaker from office.

“He’s got the whole establishment p**sed off at him, so they didn’t rally to him as the alternative,” says former Virginia representative Tom Davis, who has endorsed John Kasich. “They sat on the sidelines with their hands in their pockets.” That’s because, according to the GOP aide, supporting him “would establish a new model for how ambitious young senators would behave in the Republican party that’s totally intolerable for the establishment-senator types.”

At a press conference on Tuesday morning, his final day on the campaign trail, Cruz let loose on Trump, calling him a “serial philanderer” and a “pathological liar” and concluding, “Morality doesn’t exist for him.”  But the Republican establishment and the party’s voters knew that, and they chose Trump over Cruz anyway.

— Eliana Johnson is the Washington editor of National Review. Alexis Levinson and Tim Alberta contributed to the reporting of this piece.


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